Karim Emami: 1930-2005

Karim Emami, the highly-regarded Iranian translator, editor, lexicographer and critic, died in his home in Tehran on Saturday. He was 75.


Although best known for his translations and his influential work as an editor, his involvement in the world of books and the arts was astonishingly wide-ranging. He did film and art criticism, wrote on photography, and worked on dictionaries and became an authority on aspects of the Persian language. He helped launch a successful bookstore. As a young man, he even worked on documentaries with the writer and film-maker, Ebrahim Golestan.

As chief editor for Franklin books he was instrumental, along with colleagues, in the publication of quality books, training a younger generation of writers and editors, and setting high editing standards. He later took these skills to the Soroush Press, the publishing arm of National Iranian Radio and Television. In the 1970s, he was also associated with the literary journal, Ketab-e Emruz. Although only eight issues of the magazine appeared, it served as important forum for the discussion of books and literature and as a model for a number of post-revolution literary journals.

His translations from English into Persian include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, John Osborne’s ground-breaking play, Look Back in Anger, and Dennis Wright’s playful account of the encounter between Iran and England in the 19th century, The Persians Among the English. His translations encompassed both high and popular literature. In the late 1980s, he took up the daunting task of producing a new translation of the quatrains of Omar Khayyam. A collection of 72 quatrains was published as The Wine of Nishapur in 1989. In the 1990s, he published a well-selling translation of A. Conan Doyle’s Selected Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Karim Emami took an early and strong interest in contemporary Persian poetry. Already in the 1960s he began to translate into English examples of the work of contemporary Iranian poets, including Sohrab Sepehri and Forough Farrokhzad. A handful of these translations was published in the English-language daily, Kayhan International. His translation of Farrokhzad’s long poem, “Another Birth,” is still regarded as a classic. Work over the years on Sepehri’s difficult and elusive poetry resulted in the publication in 2003 of The Lover is Always Alone, a bilingual edition in which the Persian and English versions of the poems appeared on facing pages.

The success of the Sepehri volume led the publisher to commission another translation project, the ‘haiku’ poems of the filmmaker, Abbas Kiorastami on which Karim was at work when he passed away.

Karim Emami’s association with Sepehri was typical of his engagement with the writers and creative artists of his time. He was quick to recognize the considerable talents of Sepehri, one of the best poets and surely the finest painter of his generation.. He won the reclusive Sepehri’s confidence, became a friend, and interviewed him . He helped promote his work and to make it better known. An account of his friendship with Sepehri appears in the introduction to The Lover is Always Alone

For Karim Emami, translation was a craft—one to be learned through practice, familiarity with an author’s works, a careful attention to meaning. As evident in the Sepehri translations, he took great pains to find the exact word, to get the meaning right. His numerous essays on the craft of translation were collected, in a single volume, under the title of Az Past-o-Boland-e Tarjomeh (The Ins and Outs of Translation)—a kind of handbook for students and other practitioners of the translator’s vocation.

In the early 1960s, Karim took up the cause of a new generation of Iranian painters. He befriended them, wrote reviews of their work for Kayhan International, helped place the work of individual painters in the larger context of the development of Iranian art. He even coined a phrase, “saqqakhaneh” (which took hold) to describe a particular genre of this painting, which combined religious imagery with modern painting techniques. He was among the first to call attention to the manner in which painters like Zenderoudi were transforming a traditional Iranian craft, calligraphy, into a modern art form. Karim continued to write on contemporary art scene, principally for the journal Kelk, well into the 1990s.

If he was generous in promoting the work of younger writers and artists and in acknowledging the work of his own contemporaries, he remaining exacting in his standards. As the writer, Masoud Behnoud wrote, Karim Emami “didn’t hand out free candy to anyone.” He had little patience for intellectual inexactitude, sloppiness or dishonesty. As an editor, critic and lexicographer, he saw himself as part of a larger community. Describing his approach to a dictionary project, he wrote, “I work alone, yet I am not alone,” a reference to earlier generations of lexicographers and writers that had come before him. A private man, his world of literary and artistic associations was nevertheless vast. Many of the best known poets, writers, painters, essayists, translators, editors, publishers, film-makers and art gallery owners of our time were his friends and associates.

The Zamineh bookstore which he and his wife, Goli Emami, helped found on a tree-lined street in north Tehran, became a kind of intellectual salon—a lively meeting place for writers, intellectuals and book lovers.

Given his interest in language, usage and meaning of words, it was perhaps inevitable that Karim Emami should turn to dictionaries and dictionary-making. He worked closely with a publisher to revive Haim’s well-known series of English-Persian dictionaries. He devoted many of these last few years to a major project of his own, a Persian-English dictionary that would take account of the substantial expansion of the Persian language as a result of the shedding of Arabic loan words and the incorporation of neologisms to reflect new ideas and concepts. As he put it, “The wheels of the word-coining machine,” were turning so rapidly, that a new English-Persian dictionary was badly needed. The dictionary, in a single, 1000-page volume, will appear posthumously, as the Farhang-e Farsi be Inglisi, probably in the Fall or early winter.

Like another great man of letters and lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, Karim Emami combined high standards with a practical view of books and publishing. His was not the ivory-tower approach to literature and learning. Books were written and manufactured, he believed, in order to be sold, read, enjoyed and used. His Persian-English dictionary project reflected his love of words and their meanings; but he saw it also as a tool for a new generation of Iranians working in the English language. The ‘coffee table’ books with which he was involved in the 1990s—illustrated books on Persian carpets, on Shiraz, on the Kavir—were intended for a growing market. But Karim’s introductions were invariably of high quality.

He was a man of intellectual integrity, dignity and grace. His loss will be greatly felt in the world of Iranian letters and among his family, friends and associates.

In 2000, Karim Emami delivered the keynote address at the conference of the Society for Iranian Studies. The lecture, on the state of book publishing in Iran, bore all the usual Emami hallmarks: knowledge, precision, humor, a broad overview underwritten by concrete detail, and attention to both the humanistic ideals and the practical problems of book publishing. When Karim sat down, the audience of several hundred gave him a standing ovation.

He was buried in Tehran on Sunday, July 10, in the Artists Corner at Behesht-e Zahra cemetery


By Shaul Bakhash

Article posted at The Center for Persian Studies (CFIS )